Discerning the Signs of the Times (part 4)

Chapters 7 and 8 of Behr-Sigel’s essays centre on the central theme of Mme. Sigel’s life, the issue of women and men in the Church.  As these chapters are read, it must be pointed out that the essays were written for the most part in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  The reason I call this to the mind of readers is that at that time this topic was being encouraged by the general trends in ecumenical and theological scenes world-wide.  Unfortunately, the extension of this movement, a more significant role for women in the Church, led to a relativism that opened the door for the current and more difficult issue within the contemporary ecumenical setting.  The newest difficulty for the Orthodox is the problem of the role of practicing homosexuals, be it their “marriage” or ordination.

Female saints

Some Women Saints of the Church

The injustice is that this current development has pushed aside the valid concern of the role of women.  This issue is a topic that must be faced with thoughtful study and consideration.  Behr-Sigel introduces her approach to this topic with a discussion of the question of Holy Tradition vs. common tradition.  This inquiry is tantamount to the consideration of the conversation about women and the Church.  What is true Tradition and what is custom?  Our Church is a Church of Living Tradition; from this Holy Deposit of truth springs all the teachings of the Church.  The Bible, the dogmas, the teachings of the Holy Fathers and Mothers of our life as a people of God are all part of Holy Tradition.  This Tradition is the sinew of faith.  In addition, the life of the Church in history develops traditions with a little “t” which are the practices and customs which acculturate the Church in a time and place.  There are times that these two traditions are confused.  They are not only confused, but in an attempt to preserve essential Tradition, everything is zealously preserved even the non-essential. What is the true authority by which the Church is regulated?  Within these two traditions, the ferment and question of the role of women becomes entangled.  Did we not have women deaconesses within the Holy Tradition of our Church?   Did we not see their diminished manifestation in the tradition (little t)?  The Church of today must grapple with this question.  Behr-Sigel asks the difficult questions, while witnessing to the process by which the Church is using to deal with these matters.The theological foundation which forms the backdrop of this conversation is the subject matter of the next few chapters.

The beginning point is, of course, the example of Jesus and His relationship with women.  The essay points out correctly Our Lord dealt with the person, not with groups.  He encountered individual humans, not men or women, not colours or nationalities, nothing but a personal encounter with God was the reality of coming face to face with the Messiah.  Behr-Sigel rightly calls to our attention that Jesus shattered the “tradition” of His time concerning with whom he “should” associate.  Women, tax collectors, adulterers, prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers, those possessed by demons; none were taboo for the touch of the Master. These examples are telling us what is important is the person relationship with Christ, the encounter not the convention of society.  Is this example borne out in the life of Church?  What is the Tradition and what is tradition?

Discerning the Signs of the Times (Part 2)

The two chapters, which we will look at today, center on two very diverse topics.  Beginning with Chapter 3, Mme Behr-Sigel discusses a lifelong passion of hers.  The title of this chapter reveals her focus, Orthodoxy and Peace.  Rightly, the beginning of this chapter deals with the liturgical aspect of peace. Even though it is not always emphasized, this should be the crux of any discussion of the theology of the Church.  I once read a statement from a well known Orthodox theologian who endured the Communist repression of the Church in the last century.  He said that Church was striped of all her riches, schools, and influence; as long as the Liturgy was served, the Church would survive.  This was the reality of persecuted Orthodoxy; liturgy is the heart of the Church and fed the soul of the faithful.  Behr-Sigel chose to begin her essay with this observation.  She points out the central place of peace within the Divine Liturgy.  The deacon begins the Great Litany asking that “peace” be the entire bearing of the participants in the liturgy.  

Peace Unto All
Peace Unto All

The priest blesses and calls for “peace for the congregants and they respond asking for his spirit to be peaceful.  Clergy exchange the Kiss of Peace.  With the exception of the personal pronouns “we and us,” peace is the single most often used word in our liturgy.  After focusing on the centrality of peace in the liturgy, Elisabeth then discusses the effect that nationalism and national identity influence the Church and its mission to strive for peace among nations.  No doubt, complex geopolitical issues affect the closely knit church-state relations in many Orthodox countries.  Behr-Sigel points out areas of concern to Orthodox peoples; Serbia (note the date of the article), Palestine, and the cooperation of Constantinople, Russia and the WCC and peace efforts.  Never the less, the increased presence of Orthodoxy in the west should help provide a catalyst for a pan-orthodox peace movement.  For further information link to the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (http://www.incommunion.org)

Chapter Four discusses a theological theme which is dear to my heart.  The topic is the concept of kenosis.(see post Standing by) The scriptural heart of this principle is not only Philippians 2, 5-7 as pointed out in the essay, but also all of salvation history. 

Extreme Humility
Extreme Humility

The kenosis of Our Lord is at the center of Orthodox theology.  God humbling Himself to take on flesh, so that He could identify with us His creation is the essence of His salvific mission in obedience to the will of the Father.  The hymns, poetry and art of the Church bear witness to this tenet.  Behr-Sigel describes the prevalence of this concept in Russian theological thought and literature.  The monastic vocation is a true reflection of this theological concept and has been since its inception in the Egyptian and Palestinian deserts.  Modern Greek theologians Zizioulas, Nellas, and Vlachos; in addition to many familiar Russian theologians have written about this aspect of Orthodox theology.  Dr. Behr-Sigel masterfully weaves the theme of kenosis and its imprint on the soul of Russia and her people.

Discerning the Signs of the Times ( Part 1)

This edition of the Friday blog will centre on the preface, the introduction and the first two chapters of this book.  In the preface, Fr. Michel Evdokimov introduces Dr. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.  My mother, of blessed memory, was fond of reminding my sisters and me that you can always tell a person by their acquaintances and friends.  Reading the names of Mme. Elisabeth’s Orthodox friends in the Russian-French community is like reading a who’s who in twentieth century Orthodox theological circles.  The names Bulgakov, Lossky, Evdokimov and Gillet jump off the page, only to stress the rare times in Paris during the life of Elisabeth.

discerning2 Continuing this introduction to Mme. Behr-Sigel in chapter one she relates her journey to embrace the faith.  I was struck how very similar her story was to so many of our fellow Orthodox in this country.  Marriage to a member of the Church combined with study and the influence of church members all contributed to bring Dr. Behr-Sigel to Orthodoxy.  As a noted member of the academy in France, Mme. Behr-Sigel brought a wealth experiences to the Church family.  Additionally, she lived during the critical times of the two world wars and the turmoil within the Christian communities of Europe and the world as the result of the wars.  The two great issues which incited fervor in Dr. Behr-Sigel were questions that, in my opinion, remain to be fully explored and more completely resolved.  These concerns are the subject of the full participation of the royal priesthood, most especially women, in the Church and the question of how the Church responds to the challenges of modernity and its impact on the Church.  These two great trials continue to confront us as the Church.  It will be a voyage of discovery as we read this book.

I read with great personal interest the second chapter of the book.  These pages contain a reprint of an address Behr-Sigel gave at the Orthodox Theological Institute at Cambridge in 1998. The topic of Dr. Elizabeth’s lecture discussed the task of Orthodox Theological Formation.  This talk was an opportunity to once again return to the two themes which animated Behr-Sigel, the role of women in the Church and modernity and the Church.  If one reads the speech closely the call for Orthodox theological formation at a center of western learning was essential to equip future Church leaders to address issues facing us in this age.  The Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies at Cambridge (http://www.iocs.cam.ac.uk/) has provided a fertile environment for teaching theology to the lay, academic, and pan-Orthodox peoples of Great Britain for over ten years.  Ria and I have been privileged to benefit from many of the Institutes programs during our years in Britain.  The vision of Dr. Behr-Sigel, expressed in her address, that the centre at Cambridge becomes a source of teaching Orthodox Tradition has been realized.         Dn. George